23 July 2002

Congo and Rwanda reach fragile deal to end conflict

Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo reached a tentative agreement yesterday to end years of war that have claimed millions of civilian lives. The deal, announced in South Africa after five days of talks there, requires Rwanda to pull its troops out of eastern Congo in return for the government in Kinshasa disarming and dismantling the extremist Hutu militia - the "interahamwe" - which led the genocide of Rwanda's Tutsis eight years ago. But it was not clear last night whether the dispersal of the interahamwe would have to come before Rwanda pulled out the estimated 20.000 soldiers it has in Congo. Previously, Kigali insisted that it would not leave Congo until the threat from the interahamwe on its borders was neutralised. The mediator, South Africa's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, was evasive. He said that "an understanding has been reached" but declined to elaborate until the Rwandan and Congolese presidents had approved the deal. The Rwandan representative at the talks, Patrick Mazimhaka, said he was encouraged but did not predict an immediate end to the war. "We have no doubt that if we can diligently execute this broad agreement we shall bring to an end this conflict that has been engulfing our countries for several years sooner rather than later," he said.

The UN estimates that more than 2m people have died in Congo because of the conflict, mostly civilians killed by starvation and disease. In some regions, whole towns have lived in a perpetual state of terror for years, with women subjected to repeated mass rape by combatants, along with indiscriminate killings and severe food shortages. The conflict has its roots in the 1994 genocide, which prompted the victorious Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda to invade the former Zaire twice in pursuit of the interahamwe. The Hutu militia continued to raid Rwanda and murder Tutsis for years after the genocide. The first invasion in 1996 led to the overthrow of Zaire's long-time dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. The second invasion, two years later, came after the man the Rwandans put into power in Kinshasa, Laurent Kabila, shunned Kigali and failed to deal with the interahamwe. After Kabila was assassinated last year, his son, Joseph, became president.

In April, most of the belligerents in Congo reached a peace agreement, including Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and various Congolese rebel groups. But rebels backed by Rwanda, the Congolese Rally for Democracy, consistently refused to sign the deal and Kigali failed to fulfil its pledge to withdraw its troops because it accused Kinshasa of continuing to arm and train the interahamwe. But Rwanda has been under growing pressure to honour earlier promises to pull out of Congo. The time may be ripe as the threat from the interahamwe is greatly diminished and the Rwandan intervention is proving a quagmire for Kigali, militarily and diplomatically. The huge civilian death toll in Congo and the mass looting of its mineral wealth have been considerable embarrassments to the Rwandans. And while the invasions and years of occupation have helped bring a kind of stability to Rwanda, the turmoil continues in Congo. Last week, Rwandan troops and their Congolese rebel allies were fighting the Banyamulenge Tutsis whom Kigali formerly claimed it was defending from the interahamwe. (Guardian / UK)

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